Colombo Telegraph

Not Quite “Waiting For Godot”

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Wikipedia describes “Waiting for Godot” “as an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone …”

That quote certainly came to mind the other night when I and the rest of the forty-odd “number holders” languished in the corridor of one of the “channel centres” in a provincial capital.

I had symptoms very similar to a friend who had recently been diagnosed with a detached retina and who had had to undergo complicated (and expensive in a private institution) surgery.

I took the usual Sri Lankan route, phoned the “channel centre,” as these places where patients meet consultants are called, and was given a number: eleven, to be exact.

That was a little off-putting because the consultant began seeing patients at 7:30 in the evening and would not, I assumed, go on for too long given the fact that it must have already been a long (professional) day in ward and operating theatre before arrival at “the centre” which, incidentally bears the name of one of those “important” families of that particular city.

My assumptions were to be turned on their head quickly enough.

Despite the fact that I know consultants not to belong in the category of “clock watchers” in the matter of showing up at the times scheduled by them, I arrived a half hour early on a dark and drizzly night which most nights have been for the past little while.

I gave my name, producing, as I always now do, a business card which is expected to do away with the verbal contortions which usually erupt when I have to give that information orally.

Anyway, the officious young lady did get it right, but recorded me only by my first name, something that was not unique to this particular location as I’ve discovered since my return to the country in which I received it.

The fun had only begun.

I moved towards the corridor, jam-packed with humanity awaiting entry into the hallowed chambers in which those who supposedly took the Hippocratic Oath ply their respective trades.

My loss of hearing hasn’t destroyed by ability to read receipts and the one I was given had a female first name. Not a particular problem until I realized that the number allocated to that person was thirty-nine, if I remember right.

Anyway, back to the counter I go in an effort to correct a mistake for which the clerk concerned bore complete responsibility. She, however, appeared most annoyed that I had accepted the wrong receipt and, with a mutter and scowl, dispatched one of her flunkeys in search of the person now carrying a receipt for money paid by Emil and the number eleven on it.

I was pleasantly surprised when quick success was achieved, perhaps because the throng in the corridor had not yet reached proportions when the only practical way to make progress would have been with a battering ram. I swapped the 39 or whatever I was holding for my 11 and the waiting began in earnest. This was a little after 7 p.m. and I expected that, typically, the Hippocratic Oath-taker would be a half-hour to an hour late.

A little aside here might be appropriate at this point: the corridor that served as the point of entry into each consulting room must originally have been intended for about one third the number that was there that night and the seating accommodation confirmed this. In spades.

Let me tell you that shifting from one leg to another for more than an hour is no fun for someone long past the proverbial three score and ten years. However, I got lucky when one of the other vertical patients pointed out a vacant chair at the far end of the corridor. We were now on the cusp of about 8:30 p.m. and I wondered what would happen to what I guessed to be in excess of forty patients, many presumably from out of town and dependent on public transport or a motor bike, particularly given the adverse weather.

Sometime after 9:30 p.m. our Angel of Mercy/Practitioner of the Hippocratic Oath (take your pick) arrived. Just prior to this, I had enquired from the front desk whether, in fact, the person we were all there to see would show up. The translation of what I was told was that “she usually doesn’t not come,” which was, I thought, a fairly quaint way in which to prepare us for the worst if that was to be our fate.

In a very short time, given the fact that there were ten patients ahead of me, I was ushered in and greeted with something to the effect of “What is it this time” which, given the context, would suggest that I was some kind of hypochondriac with an eye obsession.

I was put through the basic examination routine and had drops put into both eyes and asked to sit in a chair in a corner of the consulting room, much like someone who’d been caught with his hand in the teacher’s cookie jar and had been “sent to (that particular) Coventry.” That, however, was to be a short-lived arrangement because “patient processing” needs or something of that kind kicked in and I was kicked out to spend a while in the afore-mentioned corridor, the crush in which had not diminished.

Have you ever seen an elderly man trying to stare ceiling-wards while standing up because of the medication in his eyes required him to do so? “Awkward,” might be one way to describe the situation. “LudicrousRidiculous” would be more accurate.

A lady observing my distress was kind enough to offer me her chair while she stood with no guarantee that when I was called back in she would be able to return to her seat ahead of the more nimble in the throng!

In due course, I was called back in, given a diagnosis which, essentially, didn’t condemn me to blindness in the immediate future but which might, in due course, make Nelson’s telescope of some interest when I reached the inevitable condition.

I was, I am sure, one of the fortunate ones there that night because I not only had private transportation, no matter how modest, but someone who drove me to and from this appointment. It was certainly close to midnight when I reached home and I wondered how late it would be before some of my fellow patients of that night reached their homes. After all I was number 11 and it is anybody’s guess how many of the forty-something numbers would be processed that night and how those souls would, thereafter, find their way home and at what hour.

In case anyone can’t resist (the usual) snide remarks about “spoiled ex-pats” etc., let me put the record straight in advance. As someone who had a seriously sick spouse for many years, I’ve seen the insides of too many hospitals and consulting rooms in three continents to be naive in these matters. And one of those three continents was Asia and the country was Sri Lanka when patients in the public health care system were treated as just that and not as some part of a business equation. Things have got worse in this country and what I have related in the foregoing narrative is just the tip of the iceberg which I also described in an earlier piece about my experience in a “teaching hospital” in another provincial capital.

I am not about to suggest remedies in a piece of this length for an obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs because there are people with a far greater knowledge of public health to whom the answers are only too obvious. However, that is cold comfort in the context of government after government under-funding health care and forcing people to pay for medical services which are then provided them as if it were a privilege for them to see one of those who, presumably, took the Hippocratic Oath and presumably understands what it say.

The foregoing is bad enough without the realization that governments and Ministers of Health just don’t care and, worse yet, these betrayers of public trust have the benefit of a public that has given up and will, seemingly, continue to accept treatment like some supplicants at a manorial table.

Isn’t about time that we all mouth the memorable words of Peter Finch in “Network” and shout from the rooftops, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?”

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